Jan. 28, 2020

The Glissando

For those organists who would aspired to move from the chancel to the orchestra pit and work with the theatre organ, the glissando is a special study.
By "glissando" in organ playing is meant the technique of a quick sliding up or down, note to note, of a single finger, a thumb, the fingers and thumb of the same hand, the palm of the hand, or both hands moving in similar motion separated by the same intervallic distance; this is done chromatically (in half steps), and, when fluidly performed, is very effective at rendering a melody line cantabile, i.e. smooth and in a singable manner, while being ear-catching and, at times, majestic.
This is a subject best taught at the keys; this posting is merely an attempt to codify in words how the various types of glissandos are executed.
Any finger or either thumb can be trained to "slide" to any adjacent key to effect an uninterrupted legato of a moving melody line; this so-called "finger glissando" and "thumb glissando" along with substitution, are employed in piano playing to a much less extent, if at all, due to the presence of a damper pedal which permits notes to continue sounding when the fingers move to different keys; these however are all non-negotiable, essential points of organ technique.
The question of which notes to play as well as how many is most important; a solid knowledge of harmony in how to build chords (major, minor, 7ths, etc.) and being able to run ALL the scales in general and the chromatic scale in particular up and down the keys with either hand will make the correct, natural fingering and the working out of all forms of glissando seem second nature.
There has always been some slight difference of opinion among teachers regarding the fingering of scales and chords, and the construction of a person's hands should serve as the guide here.
For persons with average-size hands the traditional teaching is for the 3rd (middle) finger to always be on the black keys when fingering the chromatic scale ascending or descending (photo); the middle finger is the longest, strongest finger and can be trained to work very quickly with the thumb.
When playing pieces the thumb should be kept on the white keys whenever possible but at times it will be necessary to use it on the black keys.
The touch used with any form of glissando is ALWAYS legato.
When a very rapid, all-white-key glissando is to be performed on the manuals ascending, the part of the hand which contacts the keys can be either 1) the side of the thumb at the thumbnail or 2) the palm of the hand.
When the latter is employed, more than one white key sounds at the same time, but the dissonance, being of extremely short duration and ending on a consonant chord, is fully accepted by the listener's ear.
When this is done using the palm of the left hand on the manual below where the right hand is playing, it can make for a spectacular finish using the full organ; in this case the left thumb ends on a single high note which, for emphasis, and with a sharp turn of the wrist, could be doubled at the octave below using the little ("pinky") finger.
The ascending multiple-note all-white-key "accordion-type" glissando for the right hand starts on a chord in close harmony position which matches the same fingered position as the destination chord; freezing the fingers in the position of the first chord and keeping them in that same position as the entire hand glides upward along the white keys simplifies its execution; with this technique the right wrist is slightly rotated (supinated) and the fingers of the right hand are curved; should the destination chord be of a different fingered position than that of the starting chord, the fingers can be left in the starting fingered position until the just before the end of the glissando.
When playing dramatic song arrangements which have a big finish it's always a good idea to save an extra inch of swell pedal opening for the very last; if an extra "kicker" is desired after the right hand reaches a high final chord, a 32' pedal stop and a big untremmed manual reed can be drawn on the manual above as the swell shoe is closed; the final left hand chord on that higher manual, which is typically a 2nd inversion triad of the tonic chord, is then approached from a half-step higher; the fingers and thumb of the left hand hit that chord and then gliss downward a half-step to the tonic chord as fast as possible to land at the same time that the left foot hits the tonic note in the bottom octave of the pedals; when this is followed by a full crescendo of the swell shoe before the hands are released, a very dramatic ending can be effected.
This technique of half-step chord glissando downward to the tonic chord also works best when the final chord lands on mostly, if not all, white keys (for example, C, F, or G major).
On the pedals the all-white-key glissando is almost always performed descending and with the inner surface of the left toe; the "feel" is that of using the big toe of the left foot to slide downward until the destination pedal note is reached; here again, the starting note and destination note may be either white or black.
Chromatic glissandos are performed on the manuals only and may be either single note or multiple-note.
When traveling between 2 different single melody notes widely separated for the right hand, the insertion of too many intervening chromatic notes will make it obvious that the performer is striving for the glissando effect; to keep from overdoing it and to stay in rhythm, it's best to glissando through ONLY the first 2 intervening chromatic notes and then leap the the destination note; the listener's ear will "fill in" the rest of the intervening chromatic notes.
If the harmony at the starting melody note for the right hand moves by leap to a different harmony at the destination note, the general tonal trend also must be considered; in each case the notes in the glissando between consecutive notes in the melody will need to incorporate a semitone which moves the harmony into the destination chord.
The video of "I'll Be Home For Christmas" posted on this web site demonstrates how glissandos can be incorporated into a song to make it more flowing and attention-getting [See menu bar, Videos].
Multiple-note chromatic glissandos for both hands ascending in similar motion are of many different types; some are executed in close harmony position, some in open harmony position; the left hand could follow the right hand at the interval of a minor 3rd below, a minor 6th below, or at some other interval; when the glissando starts in open harmony position and finishes up high in close harmony position the top melody note is held only part way through the glissando.
In the long chromatic glissando for 2 hands ascending 2 octaves or more in range the moving lines are kept a minor 3rd apart; if the destination tonic chord happens to be a major triad in root position, no adjustment will be needed to arrive at the 3rd and 5th of that chord, which are automatically a minor 3rd apart; all that's needed is to add the tonic note at the end to complete the triad.
At other times one of the hands might have to be started first to establish the correct intervallic distance; in general, perfect 5th and major 6th intervals are adjusted to form minor 6ths in the chromatic sweep, but this is not a rule; if one hand arrives where it needs to be in the destination chord just ahead of the other hand it may have to be held through one note change to allow the other hand to catch up to where the all notes in the destination chord can be sounded at the same time; the alternative to that would be to start that hand a little ahead of the other hand so they both arrive at the same time; either way would be fine.
At a perfect (V-I) cadence the lowest 2 notes of the dominant chord in root position and 1st inversion can be played in open position a minor 6th apart; the upward glissando from there to a 1st inversion tonic chord in close position (with root on top) would start with the 2 lowest notes with the minor 6th interval maintained all the way to the top; the top melody note meanwhile would be held momentarily for as long as it doesn't get in the way of the upward sweep, then would be dropped; when the destination is reached one would only need to add the 5th note of the scale between the 2 moving notes to form a 1st inversion tonic triad in close position.
This description will make more sense by going to the keys and trying it out, slowly.
In a descending chromatic glissando between 2 chords the starting chord is played in open position; provided that the right hand is able to stretch the entire time without releasing the top melody note, that note would be held the entire time for its full value; if the leap is wide however and the right hand cannot hold that note for its full value, the note would be held as long as possible; the destination chord here lands also in open position.
The coda for full organ which incorporates an ascending double note glissando with both hands spaced a minor 3rd apart over 3 octaves of range and ends on a root position tonic major chord with the 5th of the chord on top is a spectacular way to end an arrangement, but, it too, like any glissando, can be overdone.
To keep the final right hand chord from sounding too thin in highest compass of the manuals, an abundance of 16-foot manual tone needs to be drawn when executing this kind of glissando.
It starts first in the right hand, typically on a single dominant note in the bottom of the tenor octave; as the upward chromatic sweep begins the next note to enter in the left hand is a minor 3rd below and slavishly follows the right hand upward, always maintaining its same intervallic distance; when the right hand arrives at the dominant note in the top octave it stays there while the left hand plays both the 1st and 3rd note of the scale to form the tonic chord in root position.
The holding of a dominant pedal point at least part of the way, if not all the way, through this glissando as it climbs will be found advantageous in that it provides a tonal anchor amidst all the fast-paced chromatic sweep going on above it.
Ending on a root position tonic major triad happens to work perfectly with this because, as stated, the 3rd and 5th scale degrees which make up the root position of this chord are themselves a minor 3rd apart; as both hands arrive on these 2 notes in the top octave all the left hand has to do is hold the 1st note of the scale with it to form a completed triad.
Mastery of this technique is not all that difficult, but it does require concentration and slow practice of the chromatic scale, hands separate at first, then both hands together, gradually increasing the speed so that it can be played very quickly, accurately, and effortlessly; it's critically important that the hands maintain the interval of a minor 3rd or minor 6th at every point along the upward sweep and a minor 6th on the downward sweep (this is realized more by "feel" than by trying to watch the movement of each individual key -- an impossible task); with steady practice this will seem to fall into place by itself and is well worth the time to master it.
Once should not be discouraged with this if progress seems to be slow-going in the beginning; with patient, deliberate, meaningful practice the hands will learn what to do, and it will fall into place all by itself.
NOTE: Working these chromatic glissandos, both hands together, upward in minor 3rds and 6ths and downward in minor 6ths, is critical to learn because they're a big part of dramatizing an arrangement and almost seem demanded at times; these need to be practiced SLOWLY in the beginning, striving first for accuracy; the tempo should NOT be quickened until the entire glissando can be done with strict accuracy at every place along the sweep without mistakes.
The biggest impediment to running these glissandos cleanly is trying to practice them too fast before accuracy is attained; working them at a slow tempo and gradually speeding them up may seem the long way around, but it's actually time gained.
The more we watch others perform, the more we can steal an education with our eyes; this is especially true when learning theatre-stylized glissandos; certain videos posted on this web site will be of interest in this respect [See menu bar, Videos, I'll Be Home (For Christmas), Jingle Bells].
A valuable reference work which has a whole chapter devoted to the glissando is the out-of-print plastic comb-bound book "A Study In Theatre Organ Style" by the iconic theatre organist Don Baker [See blog, Don Baker Arrangements]; this work was published by Peer International Corporation in 1968, contains 10 big stylized arrangements, and comes highly recommended; if one could have only one book on theatre organ playing, this would be it.